Muting Rihanna and Commercializing Domestic Abuse

January’s GQ Magazine features singer Rihanna on the cover, with a story about her recent experiences and upcoming CD. As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this year Rihanna was badly eaten by her ex boyfriend, singer Chris Brown.   Claire Renzetti wrote about social class, race and intimate partner violence  here last March.

Since then, Chris Brown has pled guilty to charges of felony assault, is attending domestic violence classes, and is currently on probation. He has apologized for beating Rihanna and has appeared on several news outlets to discuss the events.

Rihanna’s GQ cover is one of a few cases where she’s talked publicly about the events of “that night.” (She spoke to news correspondent Diane Sawyer prior to sitting down with GQ.) In GQ, she says that she welcomes the opportunity to speak to young women and to give them insights, that she finds discussing her situation liberating, and that doing so helps her to “move on” and to avoid being defined by this one event. This is an admirable goal, but in the article, there are precious few examples of the insights that she wishes to share with young women. When asked specifically, she says that the biggest insight she learned is

“really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, ‘I’m gonna step into my own world. Start over.’”

She also states,

“I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on young girls’ lives, and that’s part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There’s nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man’s behavior like that.”

The reporter goes on to ask Rihanna if she ever blamed herself, to which she replies that

“I never blamed myself, but I wondered, what, what did I do to provoke it?” (italics in original.)

At this point, Rihanna’s manager tells the reporter to move on to a different subject.

I found this interview rather troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, there can be no question that Rihanna’s choice to speak out now about her abuse does not just happen to coincide with the release of her new album. GQ speculates as much when they assert that “in the record business, domestic violence isn’t just a tragedy; it’s an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption. However, by talking about her experiences with various media outlets around the time that her album is released, she is doing just that.

What I find problematic is that by encouraging Rihanna to do interviews based on the expectation that she’ll discuss her abuse—but then cutting off interviewers who attempt to discern her insights about it—her experience becomes trivialized and commodified in the worst way. What insights are young women supposed to gain from Rihanna if handlers only allow her to repeat platitudes about domestic violence (e.g., it’s never your fault, it’s hard to leave)? Essentially, these interviews lure people to buy the magazines or watch her interviews with the expectation that they’ll hear Rihanna share the salacious details of what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. They get a teaser that fortunately spares us the worst, but also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual insights or inspiration. What does emerge is a carefully calculated, if transparent, effort to use Rihanna’s tragedy to encourage people to buy her CD.

The tragedy of this is multifaceted. It’s horribly unfortunate that a young woman’s trauma is seen as something to be “handled” and “managed” as a way to boost record sales. What’s equally significant is that Rihanna’s abuse touched on many racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that go unaddressed when her discussion of it becomes cynically packaged and sold as currency. Following the initial stories that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, many blogs, discussion circles, and conversations resonated with the predictable discussions over whether she “brought it on herself,” but also evoked comments that “island women are crazy” and that black men’s shortcomings and mistakes receive more attention and criticism than those of their white peers. All of these points warrant greater analysis and/or debunking, but using Rihanna’s experience so callously precludes her from actively being part of this. Perhaps most tragically, some of these statements about Rihanna’s culpability in her assault came from young women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience domestic assault from boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. They are also the women who are usually overlooked if and when the media does decide to focus on issues of domestic abuse and violence. Ironically, then, some of the very women who maligned Rihanna are perhaps those who might benefit the most if she were to make the informed, autonomous decision to offer whatever insights she’s gained.

This is not to say that Rihanna should now be obligated to take on this role. I think if she wants to maintain her privacy about this, she should be entitled to do so. But it does a disservice to Rihanna and to all women to commodify abuse in an effort to climb the charts, and it obscures rather than drawing attention to the depth and extent of domestic violence and abuse among women of color.


  1. Prtypoison

    This is a very insightful and truthful article about Rihanna… They are profiting off of the situation and if they want to help others they need to tell the truth. To be honest most people pretty much know how it went in that car. Even though a man is bigger he’s still human and women need to also realize that they are committing DV when they hit men also. In almost 70% of DV cases the women are the aggressor but of course the man leave the most damage but women behavior should not go unnoticed. If Chris Brown was Justin Timberlake Diane would have asked Rihanna rebutle questions. That was the worst interview ever and was designed to lynch Chris.

  2. Claire Renzetti

    Excellent post, Adia. I especially appreciate your point that although young women of color are most likely to benefit from Rihanna’s willingness to discuss the abusive incident, they are also most likely to be overlooked by the media in coverage of intimate partner violence. The media create images of “worthy victims” — victims who are considered totally blameless, who in no way “contributed” to their own victimization. Women of color historically have not been viewed as “worthy victims.” I also want to take this opportunity to express concern about Prtypoison’s comment which includes the assertion that in nearly 70% of DV cases women are the aggressors. I’ve been working in the field of violence against women for over 30 years and as a criminologist I have never seen this figure. I’d like to know the source of the statistic.

  3. Illusions

    Good post, first of all. But I am not so sure about this part;

    “So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption.”

    The quotes you post by Rihanna, you yourself seem to note do not really show great insight. And the one quote regarding blame, in the first portion she says she is not to blame, then wonders what she did to provoke it. Which seems to be a bit self blaming.

    It is very possible that her handlers are the ones who didnt want her talking about it in the early stages, for fear that she would say something to make her look less like a blameless victim, or otherwise make her less sympathetic. It may not have been Rihanna’s reluctance at all. (Especially seeing as how they were limiting what she would say, rather than encouraging her to ramble on about it.)

    I think one of the reasons this incident got so much press is the two seemed so clean cut. Although Charlie Sheen has his newest mug shot all over the tabloids in the grocery stores, I dont think that that instance of domestic violence will have quite the impact Chris Browns did, because, well, he is Charlie Sheen. He is infamous for his dysfunction. And, because of his well known history, the victim in that case will likely NOT be treated as sympathetically as Rihanna has been. What people will say is, “What did she expect?”

    Rihanna on the other hand, because of her age and Brown’s lack of a long well know history, is considered a true victim in this case by most. And it isnt really that surprising that her people want to keep it that way.

    I guess it is sad that celebrities in general will air or are coerced or encouraged to air the most painful and personal moments of their lives, and have them turned into currency as you note. I do feel especially bad for the very young ones, who may or may not have really understood what they were getting themselves into when they sought celebrity. But we cant really forget that they themselves profit from exploiting themselves. Celebrities in essence ARE a commodity, not just the work they produce. Perhaps in an ideal world it would not be that way, but it certainly is the case in this not-so-ideal world.

    All in all, though, compared to the way other celebrities personal traumas have been dealt with, I think Rihanna and her team have handled the whole thing really very well. I also think she was given very good treatment by the press in general. I think she has been made a very sympathetic character, and left with her class and dignity intact. For Hollywood and the fame machine, I have to say she and her people have done a pretty good job.

    • Adia Harvey Wingfield Author

      Illusions–thanks, good points. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you make an interesting argument. It is possible that perhaps Rihanna’s people urged her to be quiet in order to avoid the possibility that she might lead people to see her as anything but a blameless victim. You also make a good point that celebrity itself is commodified. It’s too bad that along with that commodification comes the commercialization of domestic violence, given the implications.

      • Illusions

        Yes it is a shame that domestic violence is commercialized, although the nice thing about that is it is helping to de-stigmatize it a little. In the past, there was a huge amount of shame that came along with drug and alcohol addictions or for those who suffered from domestic violence, or mental illness. The nice thing about celebrities being willing or coerced or encouraged to turn their “lemons” into lemonaide is that the shame and secrecy that often surrounded these problems, (and allowed them to rage on unchecked) is lessening somewhat.

        People in general are less willing to suffer in silence, and in general no longer feel that these things happen only rarely, and that perhaps the fact that it happened to them says something about THEM, and their own worth or culpability. I see it as a mixed blessing. I feel very sorry for the celebrities who often have their most difficult personal moments exposed for the whole world to gossip over, (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) but it also seems to serve to bring into the collective consciousness some awareness that these things can happen to anyone. That, in my opinion, tends to take away from the notion that bad things only happen to “bad” (or poor or uneducated or some specific race or ethnicity) people. Moreover, celebrities by their very nature have the ability to attract attention and funding to issues that otherwise are ignored and underfunded.

  4. No1KState

    Great post Adia. I wonder, though, if Rhianna isn’t just being violated again by the way the interviews are handled by her people. I think she told Letterman that she works mostly with men even though she’s writing/singing about empowering women and her experience with Chris. It’s seems like the youngsta is used to men running the show, and until she cuts the cord on that, I’m not sure things’ll be a lot better. She’ll be 22 in Feb, so I’m not disappointed so much by her as by, maybe, her people and parents. 22-year-olds ain’t as grown as they think.


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